High-risk cities

Sitting ducks

Print edition : May 29, 2015

After the September 2011 earthquake in Sikkim, in Tadong near Gangtok. Photo: PTI

The cities of India are not adequately prepared to handle earthquakes though 38 of them are located in high-risk areas.

India’s vulnerability in the face of natural disasters and earthquakes cannot be overemphasised. With more than 58.6 per cent of the country’s landmass prone to earthquakes of moderate to very high intensity (according to Vulnerability Atlas of India, 2006), the lack of preparedness in mitigating the risk is astounding by any standard. Despite an early start in earthquake engineering, India has not been able to develop a robust and timely mechanism to deal with such disasters. Whenever it is faced with one, a few institutional and legal structures are hurriedly put together. Sadly, most of it remains only on paper, such as the Disaster Management Act, 2005, which provides for the creation of funds; the National Building Code of India, 2005; and a dedicated disaster management force.

It is largely true that preparedness is what keeps a natural disaster from turning into a man-made tragedy. Unplanned urbanisation, haphazard development within high-risk zones, environmental degradation, climate change and unauthorised, illegal and rampant construction, all compound the problem.

The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), on the basis of various scientific inputs from a number of agencies, including earthquake data supplied by the India Metereological Department, has divided the country into four seismic zones: zone II, III, IV and V. Of these, zone V is rated as the most seismically active, while zone II is the least. The Delhi-NCR region falls in zone IV, along with parts of Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, northern parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, parts of Gujarat and small portions of Maharashtra near the west coast, and Rajasthan. Zone V comprises the entire north-eastern region, parts of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, parts of northern Bihar and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Zone III comprises Kerala, Goa, Lakshadweep, the remaining parts of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and West Bengal, parts of Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Zone II covers the remaining parts of the country. This puts 38 cities at high risk, across zones III, IV and V, with populations of more than half a million. Among these are Delhi, Chennai, Pune, Greater Mumbai, Kochi, Kolkata, Thiruvananthapuram, Patna, Ahmedabad and Dehradun.

There is thus hardly any part of the country that is not at risk of experiencing earthquakes. At least the toll of the past few earthquakes should have awakened the authorities into taking action, but it has not. The Latur earthquake of 1993 in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra claimed 7,928 lives and injured 30,000 people, The 2001 Gujarat earthquake in Rapar, Bhuj, Bhachau, Anjar, Ahmedabad and Surat left 13,805 dead and 6.3 million affected. The Sikkim earthquake of 2011, with its epicentre near the Nepal border, affected the north-eastern region. The most vulnerable are densely populated urban areas that do not have open spaces where people can rush to in case of a disaster.

Indian agencies have the numbers. According to Vulnerability Atlas of India, 2006, a tool to natural disaster prevention, preparedness and mitigation for housing and related infrastructure formulated by the Building Materials and Technology Promotion Council under the Ministry of Housing & Urban Poverty Alleviation, 10.9 per cent of the land is liable to severe earthquakes, 17.3 per cent of the land is liable to MSK (Medvedev-Sponheuer-Karnik scale) VIII (similar to Latur, Uttarkashi) while 30.4 per cent of the land is liable to MSK VII (similar to the Jabalpur quake).

But until and unless disaster preparedness is mainstreamed into our development activities and not looked upon as a separate head, not much progress can be made, says Professor C.N. Ray of the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University (CEPT), Ahmedabad. “It is often seen that one kind of disaster leads to another kind; not always, but often we see that one supplements the other. In such a scenario, a multi-hazard disaster management approach is what we should be adopting as it is done globally,” he told Frontline. For instance, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh are cyclone-prone areas, but the shelters built there can also be used as protection against another kind of disaster. Gujarat is prone to both earthquakes and cyclones. So the government should lead in building parameters so that private players can follow suit, he says.

Since Delhi lies in seismic zone IV, the National Capital Region Planning Board under the Ministry of Urban Development has stated that regional development/construction in NCR must be planned taking into account the natural and man-made hazards mentioned above. It attributes the occurrence of earthquakes in and around Delhi to the prominent tectonic features of the Sohna fault, the Aravalli fault, the hidden Moradabad fault in the Indo-Gangetic basin, the Sonepat-Delhi-Sohna fault, the junction of the Aravalli and Sohna faults and the Delhi-Haridwar ridge. So far, earthquakes measuring less than four on the Richter scale have originated from 14 epicentres located in the NCR. The Board has classified buildings in Delhi in its report and analysed the kind of damage each could suffer in case of a quake. It says, for instance, that Type A houses, constructed with stone, rural structures, unburnt bricks, clay, and so on, may suffer destruction causing gaps in the walls, partial collapse of buildings, reduced cohesion of parts of buildings and the collapse of inner walls. Type B structures, constructed with ordinary bricks, large blocks, natural stone and prefabricated parts, may suffer heavy damage, causing large and deep cracks in walls. But most Type C buildings, that is, RCC (reinforced cement concrete) buildings, may have small cracks in walls, peeling of large pieces of plaster, slipping off tiles, cracks/ fall in chimneys, and so on.

Considering the areas affected during earthquakes in the past, it can be expected that an earthquake measuring 6 or more on the Richter scale in the NCR will adversely affect the entire region with damaging intensities and affect more than 50 per cent of the NCR depending on the location of the epicentre. The areas around the river would be the most affected. The much talked about National Earthquake Risk Mitigation Project under the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), drawn up at an estimated cost of Rs.1,132 crore, was due to be implemented by this year, but it has not happened. The programme includes detailed evaluation and retrofitting of lifeline buildings such as hospitals, schools, water and power supply units, telecommunication buildings, airports/airport control towers, railway stations, bus stops and administrative buildings in the States in seismic zones IV and V. The programme includes training masons to build earthquake-resistant constructions.

Three years ago, the authorities in Delhi got together to conduct a mega drill to test the city’s preparedness to deal with earthquakes, but little else has happened on the ground since then. Although the BIS has laid down standards for construction in seismic zones, it is only a rating agency and not an implementing one. So these norms are not followed. By the NDMA’s own admission, “building construction in urban and suburban areas is regulated by the Town and Country Planning Acts and Building Regulations. In many cases, the building regulations do not incorporate the BIS codes. Even where they do, the lack of knowledge regarding seismically safe construction among the architects and engineers as well as lack of awareness regarding their vulnerability among the population led to most of the construction in the urban/sub-urban areas being without reference to BIS standards.”

After the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad and the CEPT became involved in disaster preparedness in a focussed manner. One of the key lessons of the immediate relief exercises was the lack of information. Earth-moving equipment was available, but there was no proper cataloguing of how much fuel or how many drivers were required. “We realised how weak our information base was. There should be a list of doctors, paramedics, staff and volunteers who could be contacted easily and they should be trained. Proper and timely information with monitoring is required. If trucks are coming, which way should they go? Somebody should guide them,” said Ray.

There has been adherence to building regulations since then, but buildings are still not quite earthquake-proof. “The 2001 quake was a great scare for everybody in Gujarat and since then new buildings that got built may be able to withstand the vibrations of a quake for a certain duration. But the old buildings do not stand a chance. Especially vulnerable are the older cities, where owing to congestion there is no space to get out of buildings. Institutional buildings are better off now. The houses built by the Housing Authority look ugly, but they are not a failure at all. But in many cases, emergency exits are still not properly designed, there is not much awareness among people about who will try to get into lifts in case of a disaster. That is why drills are so important to avoid panic situations which may lead to stampedes,” he said.

In Japan and New Zealand, two countries prone to frequent earthquakes, building codes are strictly followed and each building is rated according to its earthquake-resistance capability. Owing to a proper certification process, building-related issues are by and large taken care of, which drastically reduces the number of casualties.

In India, the real estate sector is dominated by private players who may or may not adhere to these strictures. So simply having policies on paper is not enough and the government needs to take all players along and build larger awareness around these issues.

Giving the example of Gujarat, Ray said: “We saw that non-adherence to little matters caused maximum havoc. At the site level, while construction takes place, steel bars X and Y in a building have to be properly tied. But if supervision is not proper, it is found that they are not tied properly and they crack. It is also required that the structures have to be allowed to concretise over a period of time before going ahead with the construction of other structures over them. Because builders and owners want to save time, that is not followed and construction happens at breakneck speed. In Kutch, it was found that buildings were not provided with a band that ties the entire structure together so that in case of a shock, the entire unit moves as one. Local authorities have to be made more efficient.”

Lastly, the sociopolitical effects of post-disaster relief cannot be ignored in a country like India. The “disaster bureaucracy” that crops up in the aftermath of an earthquake may have political consequences of reconstruction as explained by Edward Simpson, Professor of Social Anthropology at SOAS, in his work Political Biography of an Earthquake with specific focus on the 2001 Gujarat quake. He examined how spaces are rebuilt, what part of history is allowed to be preserved, and what is not. Taking a close look at those who came to intervene in Gujarat, Simpson warns us of the “underlying neoliberal capitalist agenda, with industrialisation, immigration and environmental degradation accelerated if not caused by the reconstruction efforts”.

Thus, in Gujarat, following the disaster of 2001, leaders were deposed, proletariats created, religious fundamentalism incubated, the state restructured, and industrial capitalism expanded exponentially, according to the book. Disasters affect everybody, but they affect the marginalised and the vulnerable the most in any society. Hence, in a diverse country like India, it is imperative that disaster mitigation is not solely put under bureaucratic heads but requires a deeper level of civil society engagement in planning and formulations.

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